The debate over genetically modified crops has flared up in India, where critics have stalled the commercial release of insect-resistant eggplant, despite recent approval from the country’s biotechnology regulatory committee.
India’s Genetic Engineering Approval Committee announced in October, that the new crop is safe for human consumption and ready to be made available to farmers. But its release still awaits final clearance from India’s environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, whose office has since been bombarded with faxes and emails from concerned scientists and activist organizations such as Greenpeace.
The crop is known as Bt eggplant, or Bt “brinjal” in India. It is named for a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis, or “Bt” for short, that naturally produces an insect-killing toxin. To engineer a Bt crop such as eggplant, developers extract the gene that codes for the toxin from the bacteria’s DNA. They then insert the gene into the crop’s DNA so that the plants, and their offspring, will manufacture their own insecticide.
The new crop’s developers, which include both private seed companies and public research institutes, claim that Bt eggplant can double yields and decrease pesticide use by 45 percent. Critics, however, say the potential risks to the environment and human health have not been studied thoroughly enough.
If Ramesh gives the crop’s developers the go-ahead to sell their seeds, Bt eggplant will be the first genetically modified food crop released in South Asia and the thirteenth worldwide.
“I pray every day and night that there’s no political ramble and we can get this technology to the people who need it,” said K.V. Raman, the associate director of the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II, a U.S.-funded organization that helps developing countries investigate the use of bio-engineered crops.
Over the past seven years, Raman’s team has helped Indian researchers secure the money and technology to develop and test 14 local Bt eggplant varieties engineered to ward off their most virulent pest — the fruit and shoot borer. It’s a pink, sesame seed-sized moth larva that eats the stems and fruits of an eggplant from the inside out. Developers estimate that borers can wipe out up to 70 percent of a farmer’s crop.
Critics acknowledge that, so far, no studies have directly linked the Bt toxin to health problems in humans, but some scientists argue that not enough research has been done to draw accurate conclusions about the safety of Bt crops. They worry that low levels of toxicity found in lab animals injected with Bt might indicate that the compound will have long-term effects on human health, such as a weakening of the immune system.
“I don’t believe Bt brinjal is anywhere near ready to be released,” said Pushpa Bhargava, a leading molecular geneticist in India and one of only three members of about 20 on the government review committee who argued against the crop’s approval. He said he would like to see another 10 to 15 years worth of safety tests done before the seeds go on the market.
The controversy in India is just the latest flashpoint in the worldwide battle over genetically modified food crops. Since 1994, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first — the Flavr-Savr tomato, which is no longer sold — developers around the globe have introduced 526 more candidates. So far, however, governments have approved only 12 for unrestricted use, including Bt cotton in India.
Indian plant geneticists are now working on 11 new genetically engineered food crops, including virus-fighting bananas and drought-resistant potatoes. Only Bt eggplant has been put through enough field trials to warrant consideration for commercial cultivation.
Some critics argue that India can afford to be cautious with eggplant because the crop isn’t crucial to the country’s agricultural security. “At the end of the day, a toxin is a toxin is a toxin. And really, who’s dying without brinjal?” said Suman Sahai, who has studied plant genetics for over 25 years and now runs a farmers’ rights advocacy organization in India called the Gene Campaign.
If the Indian government approves Bt eggplant, it will take developers about a year to harvest and distribute the seeds.
How the new eggplant fares could have major consequences for Indian agriculture, says C.S. Prakash, an India-born plant geneticist at Alabama’s Tuskegee University. “Once India goes through with Bt brinjal, and it reaches farmers’ feet, and they see the fruits of modern biotechnology,” he predicts, “this will open the floodgates for a new wave of crops already in the pipeline.”